The Sacred Twelfth Day Feast for Southerners

This year I actually bought a can of smoked herring to try the traditional Urglaawe meal of herring on Twelfth Night, but I still won’t skip the traditional New Year’s meal that I’ve been eating since I was a kid: black-eyed peas!

When I was a kid my mom told me that you have to eat black-eyed peas on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day “for good luck.” Sometimes we’d just have some from a can as a side dish to whatever else we were having for dinner, but we’d always try to eat at least a few. There used to be a chain restaurant called The Black-Eyed Pea that we’d go to sometimes, and they would give you a special free cup of black-eyed peas with your meal on New Year’s. Of course, it was also packed on New Year’s and hard to get a table! Sadly, it looks like now that restaurant is out of business. I’d usually get the chicken-fried steak there. Yum!

Later I found out that you’re supposed to eat collard greens and cornbread with your black-eyed peas, so that’s how I do it now. I also cook the peas with the leftover ham bone from the Yule ham (with any leftover meat still on it), because the peas need some kind of smoked pork in them. The leftover meat ends up falling off the bone, and then I shred it up into bite-sized pieces and mix it back in.

In addition to the lucky peas, the collard greens represent money. The golden cornbread and pork are also symbols of prosperity. Overall, it seems like a very Vanic meal. In Urglaawe, the New Year’s feast is in honor of Frey, and the traditional fare is pork and sauerkraut. Well, collards are really just a more heat-tolerant, non-heading variety of cabbage, so I think this is close enough as a Texas equivalent of the traditional Twelfth Day feast for Frey.

You cook black-eyed peas about the same way you’d cook any other dried bean, though they are a different species than the common bean (pinto beans, kidney beans, etc.). They’re actually more tender and take less time to cook than common beans. It’s not even necessary to soak them, but if you do, they only take about an hour to cook. If you don’t soak them, they take about two hours to cook. I sweat some onions first, and then add the ham bone and a pound of peas, cover with water, and simmer until done. Simple!

There are actually more varieties than just the black-eyed ones. There are solid red ones, solid black ones, ones with purple eyes instead of black, etc. The ones that aren’t black-eyed are usually called “cowpeas” or “Southern peas.” I’m sure any of the colors would work for the magical meal. The black-eyed ones are just the ones most likely to be found at an ordinary grocery store.

As for the collard greens, I have some growing in my garden right now that are ready to harvest for the feast. Collard greens are just the southern version of kale, without all the trendiness. No really, collards and kale are just different varieties of the same species of plant! And they’re also the same species as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. I grow collards in my garden every winter. Yes, I grow kale too, but the collards do better. I grow mustard greens as well, and sometimes mix them in with the collards when I make a “mess o greens.” Mustard greens have a “bite” tot hem, while the collards are a lot milder, like cabbage. Turnip greens can also be mixed in, and even diced up turnip root, but my turnips are not anywhere near ready yet.

To make a “mess o greens,” I rinse the greens from the garden well (make sure there aren’t any bugs hiding in there), cut out the tough rib in the middle, and then slice them up into bite-sized pieces. Then I sweat some onions in bacon grease in a pot, add in the greens (keep in mind that they shrink a lot when they cook, so you have to have a lot of them), get the greens to wilt a bit, and then add water or chicken stock and gently simmer them.

In most cases I like my vegetables a little on the crispy side. Collard greens are an exception. In this case you’re supposed to cook them until they are very soft, maybe about half an hour. Then I add a splash of vinegar (members of the cabbage family really benefit from something acidic added to them) and salt and pepper to taste.

But if you boil vegetables for a long time, all the nutrients come out into the water, right? Well, in this case, the liquid from the cooked greens is called “pot liquor” and you are supposed to drink it. You can dunk your cornbread in it.

Which brings me to the golden cornbread, which is made with buttermilk and cooked in a cast-iron skillet. Texans also don’t like very sweet cornbread. I’ve had cornbread before that reminded me more of yellow pound cake than cornbread. In my cornbread, there is more cornmeal than flour (because it’s CORNbread), and only 2 tablespoons of sugar (because it’s cornBREAD, not cake).

Sometimes I mix the greens into the peas, and sometimes I eat them separately. Both the greens and peas get some hot sauce on top. You can also put the peas over rice (and then it’s called Hoppin’ John). Beer is my preferred beverage to drink with it.

Black-eyed peas are from Africa, collards (and other members of the cabbage family) are from Europe, and corn is Native American, so this meal is as multicultural as Texas itself.

To me, it’s just not New Year’s in Texas without it.

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Delicious Yule Treats from the Ancestors

When I was a kid, we used to go to this German restaurant and store in Dallas called Kuby’s. It was a hang-out spot for my grandmother and her German immigrant friends. I especially liked going there around Christmastime. Germans really know how to do Christmas right, and that whole place was turned into a Christmas wonderland with so many wonderful goodies. At least that’s how I remember it.

We’d always get an advent calendar with little cardboard doors to punch out and get a chocolate each day until Christmas. For Christmas I’d sometimes get these imported packaged cookies that “Santa” probably got from Kuby’s too. There were these little round spice cookies coated in white icing called Pfeffernusse, and these other spice cookies that were bigger, and came in different shapes like hearts and stars, and some of them also had white icing, but some of them were covered with chocolate.

This time of year, around Yule, when it gets cold outside, I start really craving German food. I never really want it the rest of the year, just when it’s cold and drizzly outside, so a couple of years ago I put The German Cookbook by Mimi Sheraton on my Yule wish list. I’m a lot more into cooking than my mom ever was, and my grandmother died when I was very young, so I never really learned how to cook any German food myself.

Then I put the book on my cookbook shelf in my kitchen with all my other cookbooks and didn’t really do much with it.

At least, until this week.

This week some kind of baking-madness came over me and I decided to try making, not just one, but THREE of the recipes for traditional German Christmas treats from this cookbook. I made Anislaibchen, Pfeffernusse, and Lebkuchen. Phew! And of course each of these recipes is huge, so now I have enough cookies to give some away to pretty much everyone I know and still have plenty for myself and my husband. (Especially since I also made a batch of not at all traditional peanut butter and oatmeal no-bake cookies because they are my husband’s favorite.)

I chose those particular recipes because I remember getting store-bought Pfeffernusse when I was a kid, and wanted to try homemade. There are several versions of Lebkuchen in the book, and the Nurnberger Lebkuchen looked like the recipe that was closest to those other, chocolate-coated cookies I remember. I also chose to make Anislaibchen just because it had only four ingredients that I already had on hand.

So how did they turn out?

Anislaibchen

The name means “anise drops” in English, and these are kind of weird. Anise is a love-it-or-hate-it flavor that I happen to love, so I don’t mind having a black licorice flavored cookie. The cookie itself is weird though. There are only four ingredients: sugar, eggs, flour, and anise seeds. You whip the eggs with the sugar for 10 minutes with an electric mixer (thank goodness I have an electric mixer and didn’t have to do that by hand!), and then mix in the flour and anise seeds, drop them by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet, and then┬áleave them sitting out overnight! That’s the weird part. They’re supposed to dry out on the outside. Then when you bake them, the dried-out part forms a crispy, crackly crust over the soft inside.

Like I said, this week has been cold and rainy, so mine didn’t dry out as much as I think they were supposed to. The ones around the outside of the cookie sheet did form the crispy top, but not the ones towards the middle. Maybe I should have left them out longer to make sure they all dried enough, or maybe even put a fan on them to help with air circulation.

Pfeffernusse

This name means “pepper nuts” in English. This is the recipe that had the most spice in it: citrus peels, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cardamom, and black pepper. I couldn’t find candied orange or citron peel at the store, so I had to substitute just plain dried orange and lemon peel that I rehydrated with a little rum. They also have eggs, white sugar, brown sugar, ground almonds, “3 heaping cups of flour,” and “a generous pinch of baking soda.” That’s a thing that annoys me a little bit about this book. Baking is supposed to be precise! What do you mean by “heaping cup” or “generous pinch?”

These cookies were also left out overnight, and then it says to bake them at 300 degrees for 20 minutes, or “until they test done.” What does that mean? How do you test them? I ended up eating one to see if it was done, and it seemed like it was, I guess. Then when still warm, they are brushed with rum and rolled in confectioner’s sugar (I shook them in a Ziplock bag for that). I like the coating of powdered sugar better than the white icing on the store-bought Pfeffernusse. It’s pretty.

Lebkuchen

To my surprise, even though Lebkuchen is usually described as “German gingerbread,” the recipe in this book does not call for any ginger. Makes me think gingerbread is actually something different! This recipe has citrus peel, cinnamon, and cloves (along with eggs, sugar, a whole pound of honey, ground almonds, flour, baking powder, and black coffee), but no ginger.

I expected to end up with a cookie dough from this, but instead I got more of a cake batter that the instructions said to spread out into a jelly roll pan (I used a half-sheet pan), and then cut into bars when done and cool. So more like a bar cookie or brownie than something you roll out and cut with cookie cutters (like gingerbread).

The book had three different icing options: a white icing, a Lebkuchen glaze that has rum in it, and a chocolate glaze. I decided to do half with the run glaze, and half with the chocolate glaze.

I got really worried when I made the chocolate glaze, and I ended up with this really thin stuff. I put it on the Lebkuchen, and it was so thin that much of it ran off onto the pan. Once I finally got some to stick, I waited and waited for it to harden, and it still stayed wet and sticky. I was so sure I messed it up somehow.

But just like with the weird leaving-cookie-dough-out-on-the-counter-overnight thing, I should have trusted the wisdom of the ancestors, because I went and ate lunch, and when I checked them again, the chocolate had hardened up perfectly! The only problem is that it’s still thinner than I’d like, and I think that’s because I was supposed to have left the pan off the heat for a while longer to let it cool and thicken before trying to put it on. This was another place where the directions in the book were vague, and said to stir it off the heat “until a film forms,” so I guess I didn’t wait long enough.

Overall, I think I like the Pfeffernusse the best. They’re the spiciest of the three. My husband seems to like the Lebkuchen the best, which is less spicy and the chocolate and coffee gives it a mocha-like flavor. The anise drops would probably be better if I had let them dry enough, since I think the crispy top is the main appeal of them. They have the mildest flavor.

So that’s how I spent the beginning of Yule. I hope the gods and ancestors don’t mind that we’re not burning the Yule log until Friday night, instead of on the actual solstice, so my husband doesn’t have to go to work in the morning and can stay up late for that. I will use some of these goodies as offerings. I tend to use baked goods as offerings a lot. Considering the extra work that goes into baking something from scratch instead of buying it, it seems like a good thing to do.

And since I’m on a German food spree, I think for Friday night dinner I’m going to make another recipe from this book. Another thing I loved as a kid were German potato dumplings. My mom made them using a boxed mix, but the recipe in this book for Gekochte Kartoffelklosse sounds close to the made-from scratch version of what I remember. My mom once mentioned that you’re supposed to put a crouton in the middle of each one, but she never did it, so I don’t think I will either. I just loved the big slimy balls of starchy carbohydrate goodness! Yum! You’re supposed to eat them with meat and gravy, so I’m going to make German beer-braised pot roast to go with it, but I’m mainly looking forward to the dumplings. I hope I can at least make them as good as the boxed mix.